Va. Excuses 8,000 Tickets Due to Tollbooth Glitches

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Jammed equipment, software trouble and, of all things, wayward gum caused thousands of law-abiding drivers to be wrongfully hit with tens of thousands of dollars in tickets for evading tolls on the Dulles Toll Road and another Virginia highway, state officials said yesterday.

Unable to determine who paid tolls and who didn't, officials dismissed 8,000 tickets from February through May and refunded $105,000 to motorists who used the toll road and the Richmond area Powhite Parkway Extension, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Collecting the proper amount of money on the Dulles Toll Road, which is used by more than 300,000 drivers a day, has been an unusually difficult challenge for VDOT. Until late last year, the highway had no cameras or other equipment at tollbooths to catch scofflaws -- only loud bells and blaring lights, signifying nothing. The lack of enforcement cost the state about $1.2 million a year, VDOT officials said.

The latest problems came months after the cameras were installed in a statewide effort to better police toll roads. Gunked-up toll collection baskets and software settings are to blame.

Nevertheless, the new program has generated results. It caught about 580,000 violations on state toll roads in the same February to May period, said Deborah Brown, director of innovative finance and revenue operations for VDOT.

"We're pretty confident that we have refunded or dismissed all the questionable violations," Brown said, adding that an automated system has been tweaked to better check for errors. "We're more likely to catch problems and weed them out ahead of time. Nothing is perfect."

The refunds follow a rush of complaints from frustrated drivers who called VDOT and posted stories of mistaken fines online.

One driver, identified as a "Tysons-area attorney" on a Washington Post transportation blog, vowed in May to "fight the system" after he paid a toll but did not get a green light to proceed. "Thinking I may have miscounted, I tossed in an additional quarter and it still did not flip the light," the lawyer wrote. "To avoid blocking traffic, I proceeded on. I have now received in the mail a ticket for $25.75."

Charges on the Dulles Toll Road range from 50 to 75 cents, and cheaters are charged a $25 fee in addition to unpaid tolls. According to VDOT policy, drivers are fined only after they commit a second violation, Brown said. Officials also said it's likely that some cheaters were given a pass as the department has worked on correcting the problems.

Equipment malfunctioned in some cases because motorists dropped junk into the collection baskets in toll lanes, jamming them with fake coins, gum and other items, state officials said. When the next driver tossed in coins, the money didn't register, making the driver look like a violator to the computer, officials said.

Another issue, Brown said, involved "instances where toll collectors had to leave for emergencies or bathroom breaks, what have you. The system just did not properly detect that the lane was not manned at the time."

Drivers facing an empty booth without the correct change and honking motorists behind them would just drive through, Brown said.

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